Arab World Fest returns to Milwaukee’s lakefront

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Milwaukee’s Arab World Fest returns to the Summerfest grounds.

It’s been four years missing, and Milwaukee’s Arab World Fest is finally ready to make its triumphant return to the Summerfest grounds Aug. 8–10 with a cultural event festival that president Ihsan Atta says celebrates familial unity.

The calendar forced the festival on hiatus. The dates scheduled for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 events coincided with Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, during which Muslims pray and fast from dawn until sunset. Ramadan is clearly the sort of serious religious observance that would not fold into a festival atmosphere, especially one featuring food.

Luckily, the month of Ramadan wrapped up this year on July 28, just in time for Arab World Fest to prepare for its return.

Atta acknowledges that having been so long out of the public mind poses problems for this year’s festival. But he says Arab World Fest has been around since 1998 and was gaining popularity before its last appearance in 2010.

“The momentum was growing every year,” he says. Atta expects the Arab-American community and other former attendees to return en masse this year.

Arab World Fest follows much the same formula as the other ethnic festivals on the Summerfest grounds, filling in each variable with its own cultural elements. Vendors sell such foods as falafel, shish kebabs and baba ghanoush. Stages are stacked with song and dance from a list of artists that includes Freedom Debke Group, which will perform its trademark Levantine folk dance, Chicago-based and Morocco-born singer Nidal Ibourk and numerous belly dancers. Goods and crafts from around the Arab world are sold at the “souk,” a diverse marketplace. And educational booths are set up to teach visitors about the cultures of the 22 individual Middle East countries that are part of the Arab sphere.

There’s much to experience that’s distinctly Arab World Fest-flavored. There’s the buffet of hookah options, for one, available to rent throughout the festival and popular for mainstage watching. Camel rides are another option — an especially popular one for kids — at only $5 a ride.

But perhaps one of the most interesting inclusions is an adjoining film festival, which presents a mix of contemporary Arab films such as Flying Paper, a documentary about a group of Palestinian children trying to break the world record for most kites flown at once. The film examines the lives of the children, who live on the edge of Gaza.

The recent escalation of the ongoing conflict in Gaza (see story, page 10) could cast a pall over the festival. “Unfortunately, this has become part of our culture,” says Atta, adding that organizers briefly considered canceling it. A similar festival in Dearborn, Michigan, was canceled last year and this year due to assaults at the 2012 festival prompted by Christian missionaries seeking to convert attendees.

Atta hopes Milwaukeeans will attend the festival as a way to support the victims on both sides of the Gaza conflict while celebrating Arab culture.

“We want to have the festival in solidarity with all those families who have lost loved ones,” Atta says. “We will be that family.”

At the lakefront

Arab World Festival runs Aug. 8-10 at the Summerfest grounds. Hours are 5 p.m. to midnight on Friday, noon to midnight on Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $10 at the gate, $8 in advance. Children under 6 are admitted free. For more, visit arabworldfest.com.

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